Milestones in Engineering Information

ELD Anniversary Logo

In 2017, the Engineering Libraries Division will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a division and the 75th anniversary of the first organized engineering librarians group in the American Society for Engineering Education. In celebration of the ELD’s double anniversary year, the Anniversary Planning Task Force* is publishing a monthly e-mail digest highlighting important topics in the history of engineering libraries and information. The goal of the task force is to publish a new digest every month (or so) until mid-2017.
We welcome your feedback and ideas for future topics.

*Mel DeSart, Chelsea Leachman, Amani Magid, Nestor Osorio, Zac Painter, Anne Rauh, Tom Volkening, Michael White, Yu Zhang


  • #1, Engineering Journals, Magazines and Proceedings
  • #2, Engineering Index/Compendex
  • #3, Other Engineering Indexes and Databases
  • #4, Engineering Reference Works
  • #5, The Internet/Web
  • #6, Patents
  • #7, Standards
  • #8, Technical Reports
  • #9, Engineering Data
  • #10, Engineering Libraries


Milestones in Engineering Information, #1
Engineering Journals, Magazines and Proceedings

written by Michael White

Today there are thousands of periodicals on every conceivable aspect of engineering and engineering technology. These range from peer-reviewed academic journals and conference proceedings to professional magazines and student newspapers. The oldest peer-reviewed scientific journal is the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first published in 1665. Although many of the papers published in the Philosophical Transactions dealt with engineering topics, the first true engineering journals appeared in the early 1800s.

One of the earliest engineering journals was the Mechanics’ Magazine, first published in London in 1823. The purpose of the magazine was to convey information on new discoveries, inventions, improvements and events of interest to those employed in the “different trades and manufactures.” In 1825, James Seaman of New York launched the American Mechanics’ Magazine, which included reprinted articles from other journals as well as original articles on science, technology, new inventions and manufacturing. Within a few years, it was subsumed within the Journal of the Franklin Institute, which is still published. In 1845, the Scientific American, which focused on inventions and patents, was first published.

In the mid-1800s, engineering societies began publishing their own journals, transactions and conference proceedings. In 1836, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), formed in 1818 as the world’s first professional engineering organization, first published its transactions. By the end of the 1800s, countless engineering societies worldwide were publishing proceedings, transactions and journals. Examples include the Transactions of the American Society of Civil EngineersTransactions of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical EngineersProceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and, of course, the Proceedings of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

The growing demand for engineering news in the 1800s inspired many engineering newspapers and magazines. In addition to news, these periodicals often carried articles on practical engineering topics, correspondence from readers, scientific and technical data, book reviews, and product advertisements. One of the best known is the Engineering News Record (ENR), first published in 1874. Other examples include Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine, the American Railroad JournalElectrical Engineer, and Engineering and Mining Journal.

Toward the end of the 1800s, engineering student clubs, alumni groups, and local engineering societies also began publishing their own journals. Examples include the Technograph at the University of Illinois, the Technic at the University of Michigan, the Wisconsin Engineer at the University of Wisconsin, and MIT’s Technology Review.

The 20th century saw an explosion in engineering periodicals in all forms. Today large engineering societies publish tens of thousands of journal articles and conference papers each year. In the past 20 years, academic engineering journals and proceedings have largely migrated to online formats and many engineering professional magazines have evolved into websites and blogs. Engineering periodicals will continue to evolve as technology changes but they will remain a core source of current technical information and research.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #2
Engineering Index/Compendex

written by Mel DeSart

Little did Dr. John Butler Johnson likely know when he started producing “index notes”, just for his own use, that his little project would grow into the oldest and most subject-comprehensive indexing tool in engineering. Initially compiled into a personal book he called “Index Rerun”, in 1883 Johnson approached the Board of Managers of the Association of Engineering Societies (of which he was a member) suggesting that something similar to what he was doing, but more formal and elaborate, be produced and published in the Association’s journal. The Board agreed, and in 1884 Johnson and some of his engineer colleagues began to produce “Index Notes” in issues of that journal.

In 1892, the first eight years of those notes (1884-1891) were compiled into the Descriptive Index of Current Engineering Literature, which eventually became known as the first volume of The Engineering Index. The second volume, also a multi-year compilation covering 1892-1895, was the first published under the title: The Engineering Index. Volumes three and four were also multi-year compilations, but in 1906, with volume five, The Engineering Index began to be published annually in a single volume.

In 1918/1919 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers took over ownership and publication of The Engineering Index and installments began to run monthly (with annual cumulations) in issues of the Journal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which only a year later changed its name to what we still know it as today: Mechanical Engineering. At that same time, a cooperative agreement was reached with the Engineering Societies Library where the Index would review and index the key engineering journals published by the Library and the Library, in turn, agreed to provide the public with access to the articles covered by the Index. ASME continued publishing the Index until 1934, when an independent, not-for-profit organization, “Engineering Index, Inc.” was formed.

By 1954, 70 years after Dr. Johnson helped publish that first set of “Index Notes”, Engineering Index published its one millionth record. 21 years later it published its two millionth. From 1934 through 1961, The Engineering Index was again only an annual publication, but in 1962, because of both the volume of engineering articles being indexed/abstracted and the demand for more rapid access, Engineering Index Monthlymade its debut. Those issues were then cumulated at the end of each year into Engineering Index Annual.

Arguably the biggest and most important changes to Engineering Index happened in the late 1960s. In 1967, a magnetic tape service called Current Information Tapes for Engineering (CITE) was introduced. CITE covered abstracts only in plastics and electrical/electronics engineering. Then, in 1969, the COMPuterized ENgineering inDEX, or COMPENDEX, made its debut. Compendex, a monthly magnetic tape information service, covered all of the subject content in its print counterpart, and as a result, the specialized subject content covered in CITE was no longer needed and the product was phased out at the end of that year. In 1973, Compendex was offered for the first time through online commercial vendors such as DIALOG and ORBIT.

1981 saw a name change, as “Engineering Index, Inc.” became “Engineering Information, Inc.”, as Ei began to look at broadening their product offerings beyond just Engineering Index / Compendex. One of those new product offerings debuted only a year later, as the Ei Engineering Meetings database, which indexed papers from roughly 2000 conference proceedings, was introduced. In 1983, Engineering Index on CD-ROM was released, and then three years later, in 1986, Compendex first appeared on CD-ROM.
The next big change came in 1995, when the Engineering Information Village was launched, making Compendex and other EI products available via the World Wide Web. The name was representative of the design of the original web site, which featured a series of building images on the top page, meant to represent a village, with each building linking to a different type of resource. Engineering Information Village 2.0 premiered less than a year later.

Engineering Information, Inc. was an independent company from 1934 until March, 1998, when it was purchased by Elsevier. Roughly two years after the purchase, the next major release of the Ei search platform occurred as Engineering Village 2 (EV2) debuted. In 2003, Elsevier began to host other indexing and abstracting databases on EV2, when INSPEC licensing became possible. Over the next few years, NTIS, Referex, multiple patent databases, GeoBase, Chimica, PaperChem and GeoRef all became available on the Engineering Village 2 platform.

While it took 70 years for Engineering Index to reach its one millionth record, today Compendex boasts over 20 million records, with more than 800,000 new records added annually. Now at 130+ years and counting, Engineering Index / Compendex is the preeminent indexing/abstracting resource for the broadest range of engineering disciplines.

For further reading:

While there are a number of works that address, in various ways and time frames, the history of Engineering Index, four were particularly useful in compiling this brief history.

Engineering Index 1884-1984: Its History and its Service to Special Libraries, by Herbert B. Landau. In Special Libraries, vol. 75, no. 4, October, 1984, pp. 312-318. See page 85 of the pdf file.

Changing Roles for Science & Technology Librarians as Reflected in the History of Engineering Index, by Daryl C. Youngman. In Issues in Science and Technology Libraries, no. 18, Spring 1998.

The History of Ei, from Elsevier.

and last, but definitely not least, from ELD’s very own Nestor Osorio:

The Engineering Index: The Past and the Present, by Nestor Osorio. Presented at the 2010 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Louisville, KY.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #3
Other Engineering Indexes and Databases

written by Mel DeSart

While the last installment of Milestones in Engineering Information focused entirely on Engineering Index and Compendex, this month we’ll take a brief look at many of the other engineering-related indexes/abstracts and databases that have developed (and in a few cases disappeared) over the years. The focus here primarily will be on the history of these resources up through their demise in print or their move to electronic formats.

Second only to Engineering Index in terms of age and importance as an engineering indexing and abstracting tool is the somewhat convoluted development of what came to be known as Inspec. In 1898, less than a decade after publication of the first compilation of material that eventually became known as volume 1 of Engineering Index, Science Abstracts made its debut. It was published jointly by the Institution of Electrical Engineers and The Physical Society, London, and had, based on the subject areas of focus of its two sponsoring organizations, particular emphasis on electrical engineering and physics. In fact, only five years after it began publication, the title split into two parts: Section A (Physics) and Section B (Electrical Engineering).

Those names held through 1940, when the parts began to take on more of their own identity, as Science Abstracts Section A became Physics Abstracts, and Section B became Electrical Engineering Abstracts. In 1966, “Electronics” was added to the name of Section B (Electrical and Electronics Abstracts) and the third Section (C: Control Abstracts) of Science Abstracts was launched. But the latter retained that title for only three years before becoming Computer and Control Abstracts in 1969.

The biggest development during this era came in 1967, when the Information Service in Physics, Electrotechnology and Control (INSPEC) was created. (OK, how many of you actually knew what INSPEC stood for?) Just as was the case with COMPENDEX, INSPEC was originally released as magnetic tapes and became available through a commercial vendor (DIALOG) in 1973. By 1977, INSPEC was searchable on six different hosting services.

In 1983, Section D, covering information technology for business applications, was added to INSPEC, and in 2003, Section E, on manufacturing and production engineering, came online.

In the 1990’s, just as COMPENDEX became Compendex, so too did INSPEC become Inspec. Now with over 15 million records, Inspec is second in importance only to Compendex in its coverage of the engineering literature.

But Compendex and Inspec (and their print predecessors) were not the only tools out there. In 1914, H.W. Wilson introduced Industrial Arts Index, indexing material published the previous year. The content in this title focused heavily on industry – thus, many society and trade journals were covered. The trade focus meant that there was also business-related content indexed, and in 1958 Industrial Arts Index split into Applied Science and Technology Index and Business Periodical Index. As an electronic tool, Applied Science and Technology Index is now part of the Ebscohost family of databases.

The 1940’s was a prominent decade for the creation of new engineering-related indexes, particularly by organizations affiliated with the United States government. In 1946, from the Office of Technical Services within the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Bibliography of Scientific and Industrial Reports began publication. Although titled a bibliography, it was largely an index of science and technology government reports. After undergoing a number of name and content changes over the ensuing 25 years, the resource finally settled on a title it would hold for decades: Government Reports, Announcements and Index.

The Office of the Publications Board was established during World War II to “collect, review and transmit to the public formerly classified technical information”. In 1950, Congress passed the Technological, Scientific and Engineering Information Act, part of which instructed the commerce secretary to establish a repository for technical information and to make “the results of technological research and development readily available to industry and business, and to the general public.” The Office of the Publication Board became the Office of Technical Services (cited above), then the Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information, and finally, on September 2, 1970, the National Technical Information Service was established by an act of Congress. NTIS was both the organization that made U.S. government technical reports accessible and the name of the database that indexed those reports over the decades. The NTIS bibliographic database, which indexes content generally back to around 1964, is now supplemented by the National Technical Reports Library (NTRL), which includes full-text content of select reports available from NTIS.

In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission, through its Technical Information Division in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, began publication of Nuclear Science Abstracts. The title was continued briefly as the ERDA (Energy Research and Development Administration) Energy Research Abstracts from 1976-1977, then became just Energy Research Abstracts after ERDA morphed into the Cabinet-level Department of Energy in 1997. That title ceased in print in 1995, but its content was subsumed within the DOE’s Energy Citations Database.

The next significant round of engineering-related indexing and abstracting tools creation came in the 1960’s. In one of the more unusual cases, Petroleum Abstracts was created in 1961, not by a society or a government entity, as were most other indexing and abstracting tools previously, but rather by a school, in this case the University of Tulsa. It continues to this day in the form of the TULSA database, searchable on a number of platforms.

The 1960’s were also the “era of aero”. In 1961 the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) created International Aerospace Abstracts (IAA) and in 1964, NASA created Scientific and Technical Aerospace Reports, or STAR. Never were two indexing resources in the same field so complementary of each other. While IAA indexed the journal and (to a lesser extent) conference literature, STAR focused entirely on technical reports (although to be fair, some of those technical reports were conference proceedings). The two print resources were combined in electronic form as the Aerospace Database, which lives on as part of ProQuest’s Advanced Technologies and Aerospace Database.

There are many other more specialized print indexes and abstracts that could be included in this list (e.g. Metals Abstracts/Metadex, INIS Atomindex, Earthquake Engineering Abstracts, etc.) and their electronic counterparts, as well as more general sci-tech products (e.g. Science Citation Index/Web of Science, Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management (an amalgam of a dozen different sub-files, many which used to be print indexes), Chemical Abstracts/SciFinder, etc.), those will not be addressed here.

But I’ll end with the biggest surprise I found when researching this piece. Although only published as its own title starting in in the 1970s, Ceramics Abstracts began publication as a small section of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society starting in June of 1919. Who knew?

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #4
Engineering Reference Works

written by Zachary Painter

If you ask people to say a “reference work”, they would probably give you an encyclopedia. We all love the now-out-of-print Britannica, but other encyclopedias exist for engineers. Just as Enciclopedia Espasa is the Spanish language contemporary of Britannica, the development of encyclopedias in engineering has sometimes followed a similar pattern. Fritz Ullman, a German chemist, created the Enzyklopädie der Technischen Chemie, or In English Ullman’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, in 1914. It would take over seventy years for Ullman’s work to be available in English in addition to the original German. A similar work in English was first published in 1947 by Donald Othmer and Raymond Kirk from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of NYU). The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology covers all aspects of chemical engineering, from substances to properties to manufacturing.

On a different note, the online revolution doesn’t mean that there aren’t any new additions to the encyclopedia family. First published in six volumes in 2004, the Dekker Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology has gotten larger, not smaller as the name might suggest, to keep up with the growing knowledge in nanotechnology. And, not all encyclopedias are broad within a subdiscipline either. Near and dear to my heart at Paul Rudolph’s utopian campus vision of UMass Dartmouth is the subject of concrete, and the 2015 edition of the ACI Manual of Concrete Practice contains a hefty seven volumes. Even I didn’t know that there was that much out there about concrete!

“What does that mean?”, is a question many of us have asked in our lives. Philosophical musings aside, our inquiries take us to works known as dictionaries, which will find the words we seek. IEEE has published several editions of their IEEE Standards Dictionary (previously known as IEEE 100; Authoritative dictionary of IEEE standards and terms), defining nearly forty-thousand technical terms and definitions found in IEEE’s standards and literature. Federal agencies also have their own famous dictionaries, such as NIST’s Dictionary of Algorithms and Data Structures. And while fossil fuels might not be the future, they certainly are part of our past and present, and you can learn more about them in M.S. Vassiliou’s 2009 work, the Historical Dictionary of the Petroleum Industry.

Librarians are famous for giving guidance and direction; Directories are possibly the equivalent in the reference world, providing contact information for companies and people. Thomas Register of American Manufacturers was first published in 1898 as Hardware and Kindred Trades. An informative source for purchasing materials and supplies, like many other works it has now moved online-only, where it lives under the name of ThomasNet.  Five years prior to the release of Harvey Thomas’ work, another industrial supply directory named MacRAE’s Blue Book, was first published. Today the Blue Book remains one of the largest industrial supply directories in North America, and like ThomasNet its operations are principally online. Directories are also known as a type of annual, which include other publication types such as almanacs and proceedings. As an example, in aviation engineering there is Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft, first published by avid miniature wargamer Fred Jane as All the World’s Airships in 1909 (shortly after the Wright brothers first took off at the Kill Devil Hills, but long before Jane could play Warhammer 40k).

Perhaps the most famous of the reference works in the engineering field are the Handbooks; typically, one-volume works which cover the most essential information for an engineer. Some of these works, such as Standard Handbook of Engineering Calculations, the Handbook of Formulas and Tables for Signal Processing, and the International Critical Tables of Numerical Data, Physics, Chemistry and Technology, allow us to never forget how to do the math that we once did as undergrads. First published in 1916 by Harvard and MIT professor Lionel Marks, Mark’s Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers is a classic example of a comprehensive one-volume work for an engineering discipline. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is no scope of other essential handbooks in a field; the Machinery’s Handbook, first published in 1914, covering workshop mechanics is just as essential for many mechanical engineers.

Other fields have their own complete handbooks too, for example Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook which was first published in 1934 by two chemists from DuPont. Robert Perry, son of John Perry who was the original editor of the work, took over as editor for the 4th edition in 1963. Finally, some handbooks are driven for a specific task. For example, you’d like to know more about that old nuclear power plant that is set to go offline soon, in which case you can turn to The Decommissioning Handbook, first published in 1980 by Nuclear Energy Services, then in the 90s by the US Department of Energy, and now in the 2000s by ASME. Or who wouldn’t enjoy reading Sax’s Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials, which has given us details about toxicology, flammability, and explosive potential of materials and substances since the 1950s?

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #5
The Internet/Web

written by Zachary Painter

The Internet. The World Wide Web. The Matrix (sort of). Librarians “of a certain vintage” may recall a time where this magically connected network did not permeate every facet of our lives, but increasingly more and more of us are only aware of a world where this is the norm. The Internet has dramatically changed our research practices, our reading habits, the ways in which our engineering patrons do their work, and many other things in our lives besides what musicals such as Avenue Q suggest. But our contemporary, ubiquitous tool known as the Internet had some fairly humble beginnings, some of which we will dive into in this month’s Milestones in Engineering Education digest.

While the Internet owes much to the telegraph and the development of computers, in addition to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article regarding Memex (which was for following links on Microfiche, and not for creating the “memes” of pop culture today), it isn’t until the concept of packet switched networks that what we know as the Internet could be a reality. When I first heard the term, packet switching was the cheeky thing you do with the sugar packages at your restaurant table when you’re bored and waiting for food. But in the 1950s, packet switching was part of an idea that would allow for information to be transmitted from one area to another in the event of a nuclear weapons attack. While we may chuckle at the naiveté of those in the 1950s now that we today could comfortably blow the world up many more times than they ever could dream of, it was a big enough fear for the military to think about doing something.

Those developments led to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the first network to use the Internet protocol and transmission control protocol we now rely on today. Three months after Michael Collins had to sit alone in a command module for a day, a student at UCLA sent “login” to programmers at Stanford; the first Internet transmission. Other early networks, such as Michigan’s Merit (the oldest currently operating computer network), and the British NPL, would shortly follow. Many of those networks, and their connections, would become part of the backbone of our current Internet or would be adopted by successors.

As with anything in life, all of these new networks were created with local standards, and not one unified protocol for how transmissions should happen. Of course, engineers being people who want to create standard methods of operation, it didn’t take long for something to be done. In 1974 the forerunner to what we call the Internet Protocol suite, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and the Internet Protocol (IP), was created. Vinton Cerf, at Stanford during this time, was the lead architect of the TCP/IP protocol that we use today (IPv4, and its successor IPv6).

The National Science Foundation created NSFNET in 1986. Because access to ARPANET was heavily restricted, commercial users found it difficult to access this growing network for communication. The NSF was a little more lenient on commercial enterprises, allowing them to latch onto the network provided that their purpose was education and research – but strictly commercial activities were forbidden. Of course, we all know that the allure of corporate money and influence would mean fears of privatization and restriction to those who could not pay, and it is true that eventually, NSFNET would make way for the more “proprietary” Internet we know today, starting in 1992. But that isn’t possible without the World Wide Web, which itself was getting its start at this time.

In 1990 ARPANET would be decommissioned, right around the time of another development in Internet and Web history. Englishman Tim Berners-Lee was on a quest to “ENQUIRE” more about hypertext and sharing data across computers in 1980. About a decade later he had joined all of the necessary components to form a fully-fleshed Internet network hosted by his employer, CERN. Relying on unique identifiers (like URLs), a publishing language (HTML), and a transfer protocol (HTTP), the CERN project was quite a success. In 1993, CERN opened the floodgates and allowed everyone to use the World Wide Web. The W3C organization, directed by Berners-Lee, would be founded a year later.

Speaking of 1993, ASEE celebrated its Centennial that year at the University of Illinois (the last time ASEE Annual has been hosted on a university campus). The earliest Web browsers looked something like Lynx – a far cry from what most of us use today. At ASEE Annual 1993, a group known as ELD (sound familiar?) was shown one of the first demonstrations of the Mosaic Web browser by a programmer named Eric Bina. Mosaic, developed by Bina and Marc Andreessen, was the first graphical Web browser; meaning that for the first time images could be displayed inline along with text on a page. The popularity of the Web exploded, and Mosaic is credited with being the thing that popularized its use among the masses. Andreessen and Bina would leave their posts at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications a year later to create Netscape, and by extension Netscape Navigator (the legacy of which lives on today as Firefox). Microsoft would soon commission Internet Explorer, and the browser wars of the 90s would coincide with the “dot com bubble”.

The Web and the Internet are not the same thing, but it is useful to see the links between the two are both are integral to the technology that allows us to exchange this email. There have been a great many changes to the Internet and the World Wide Web since the mid-90s (as this paper might illustrate), and thusly a great number of changes to how our wider global society operates. But, I thought I’d conclude the digest with a bit of a political note.

The Internet and Web have, historically in the US, operated on a free and neutral basis. While there have been exceptions, in general, the FCC and US Government have favored principles of Net Neutrality. Traffic from one node to another is treated all the same, on a free and open exchange. Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, both mentioned here as founders of our modern Internet and Web, are deeply supportive of this principle. It is possible that such support may not last for much longer. What we know of today as the Web, as an open source of information, could be changed; a concept that is anathema to many of the core values of librarianship. Stay tuned; history is being written every day.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #6

written by Amani Magid

Let’s face it…we live in a world where we are surrounded by gadgets. From mobile phones, to smart watches, to GPS and more, technology has dominated our lives in every sense ranging from the personal devices above, to new technologies in the way we travel, the way we work, and the way we live. We all enjoy and use these devices however do you ever wonder who were the geniuses who invented them? How long did it take for each device to be invented? How many other people were working on similar devices but lost out on their claim to inventing the device by the person who invented it first? The great majority of these devices have a patent or patents associated with them, which gives the holder the exclusive right to prevent others from making, using or offering for sale, or importing a product that infringes on their patent without their authorization. Patents have a long history in engineering and engineering education and is the subject of this month’s Milestones in Engineering Information digest.

The history of patents in the United States dates back to the 1700s. The first law regarding patents, the Patent Act of 1790, was signed by then President George Washington, the first president of the US, on April 10, 1790. It gave a Patent Board the sole right to issue patents. A patent was defined as “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used.”. Patents were granted if “the invention or discovery (is) sufficiently useful and important.” The very first person to be granted a patent in the US is Samuel Hopkins on July 31, 1790 for his enhancement of “the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.”

Around the same time that the first patent law was passed in the newly formed United States, many universities also came to be established. In fact, there were at least 10 universities which were fully functional by 1790, with Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary among them. Many of these universities also founded departments of engineering and/or technology during the 1800s. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is home of the oldest engineering department in the US, with their engineering program founded in 1824. In educating students about engineering and technology, it became more and more obvious that students should be versed in intellectual property as well, so that when the time came to file a patent, there would be a level of familiarity with the procedures and process. In his 1913 Engineer’s Handbook on Patents, William Macomber writes: “The need of such a handbook as this has become evident in many ways, and has been given evidence in connection with informal talks to the students in engineering in Sibley College during the periods of my regular lectures on patent law before the Cornell University College of Law…”

However, not all engineers were excited to learn about patents. As Macomber further points out: “The engineer may scorn a patent, scorn the idea of being an inventor…he must know about patents and know something of the patent law, else he is not qualified for full duty and is not fully caring for the interests entrusted to him.”

A course on patent law soon became a common component of the education of engineers at many universities, particularly at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Princeton, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Michigan. At the University of Michigan, emphasis is placed on what constitutes patentability versus infringement. Northwestern University employs a combination of case studies with lab activities. It is widely known that roughly 80% of the information in patents is not found in any other literature. More and more universities, such as Purdue University, are using the patent literature to look at new trends in engineering disciplines.

As the number of patents granted began to steadily grow, inventors needed to know what patents had already been granted in order to avoid duplication and filing an unsuccessful patent application. We presently use patent databases to find out this information. However, before the age of computers, libraries were targeted as a place to provide this information. The year 1871 marked the beginning of what is now known as the Patent and Trademark Resource Center Program, a federal act that stipulated that libraries would receive printed patents for the use of members of the general public. In the beginning, most of the libraries that were part of this program were public libraries. However, that soon also included academic libraries and state libraries.

Academic libraries play another role regarding patents which is patent education. Many academic libraries employed librarians who focused solely on engineering, and therefore needed to ensure that students studying engineering had all of their information needs met. Teaching students how to search for patents has become an integral part of most engineering librarians’ job duties. In fact, in a study by our colleague Michael White, 40% of librarians taught at least one workshop to students on how to search for patents. Therefore, it is critical that librarians keep up to date with all changes to patent searching, in order to properly educate their patrons.

Some of the changes to patent searching encompassed changes to patent law as well. In 1842, industrial designs became patentable to encourage the “decorative arts”. Industrial designs include new, original, and ornamental designs for items of manufacture. After the invention of computers in the last half of the twentieth century, software could be patented starting in 1981. At first there was resistance to the idea from the courts, who made the argument that software is “mathematical algorithms” and therefore “phenomena of nature”. However, the granting of one software patent that monitored temperature paved the way for others.

It is common knowledge that many university faculty are active in the innovation field, leading them to file many patents, usually with the university as the assignee. However, before 1980, most of the patents would list the government as the assignee. 1980 welcomed landmark legislation, The Bayh-Dole Act, which among other things allowed for patents filed from a university employee to be assigned to the university. Also called the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act, not to be forgotten is the fact that the same law applies to small businesses and non-profits, allowing them to own their patents.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #7

written by Tom Volkening

What are standards and why do we need them? The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines a standard as “a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose” and standardization is the process by which they are developed and implemented. Standards help translate scientific and technical knowledge into applications but are not themselves important until they have been accepted and used. Using the ISO definition, many of the things we use every day and take for granted work as well as they do because they conform to standards. For example, the typical laptop conforms to almost 250 standards. “Globally, there are already well over half a million published technical standard, recognized as the fundamental building blocks for the development of products that help drive the process of compatibility and interoperability; standards make it easier to understand and compare competing products.” (Schneiderman 2).

Standards in some form have been around for centuries and much has been written about their history. Over the centuries, wars, commerce and disasters have often driven the development of standards. The Romans were able to build an elaborate system of roads that allowed the rapid movement of trade goods and soldiers throughout their empire in part because they developed and enforced standard units for the measurement of length and materials. According to the Laws of the Twelve Tables (c. 450 BC), the standard Roman road should be 8 feet wide. The cubit used by the Egyptians was based on the length of a man’s forearm and was between 18 and 20 inches. Metal cubit rods have been found in Egyptian tombs. Other cultures used the length of a man’s foot as a unit for the measurement of length. For a time in early 20th century Brooklyn, there were four different legal standards for the foot. An early standard for the volume of both liquids like wine and dry goods like grain was the amphora.

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 destroyed over 1,500 building in two days. Fire fighters from nearby towns brought their own equipment, but unfortunately, many of their fire hoses could not be connected to the fire hydrants in Baltimore because the couplings were different. This led the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to develop the first national standards for fire-fighting equipment. During World War II, the US developed and implemented standards for war materials.

The measurement of time was also usually a local practice. Noon occurred when the sun was highest in the sky in your town. This worked fine when most people did not travel great distances and much of the commerce was local but with the coming of railroads in the 19th century, this began to change. The first railroads operated locally and served relatively small areas but as rail service spread across the US and other countries, the need for some type of standard time became apparent. This coincided with the spread of telegraph lines and the formation of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 in Paris. Railroad companies could synchronize times in the areas they served and often set up their own railroad standard times. Eventually a plan to divide the world into 24 time zones with each zone covering 15 degrees of longitude was accepted by the majority of countries.

The modern age of standardization started with the Industrial Revolution. For example, screw thread standards evolved over time starting in the early 19th century when machines that could mass- produce screws with identical threads were introduced. By the 20th century, national and then international (ISO) standards for screw threads were developed.

Steam powered machines drove the early years of the industrial revolution. Unfortunately, early steam boilers often exploded for no apparent reason. As scientists and engineers began to understand how these new technologies worked, standards for materials, processes, and units of measure were developed to make the technology safer and more reliable. The ASME, founded in 1880, issued its Rules for the Construction of Stationary Boilers and for Allowable Working Pressures in 1915. The latest edition, now called the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, was published in 2015. ASTM, incorporated in 1898, issued ASTM A1 “Standard Specification for Steel Rails” in 1901. An updated version of the standard exists today as ASTM A1-00(2010) “Standard Specification for Carbon Steel Tee Rails”. The growth of the electric power industry in the late 19th and early 20th century highlighted the need for electrical equipment standards and standard definitions for electrical measuring units. TheInternational Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), formed in 1906, was the first international standards organization and helped address these concerns.

Today we have thousands of standards developing organizations worldwide issuing standards and even have an organization, the Society for Standards Professionals that has issued standards for developing standards. Some of these organizations are devoted to developing standards and others are professional societies like ASME and IEEE that develop standards as part of their mission. There are also governmental organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and national organizations like the ANSI and the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). ANSI has also created a directory of standard developing organizations. Unfortunately there is no one standards database so identifying one of those half million standards can be a challenge. However, the IHS Standards Store and Techstreet allow users to search their catalog to identify standards.
One way of thinking about standards is to consider how they are developed and enforced. For example, De facto standards are created by companies or individuals that go on to gain wide market acceptance. Think of the process as a form of market driven natural selection. A good example is Adobe’s PDF file format that was developed in the early 1990’s as a way to share digital documents across platforms and then became an open standard that was published in 2008 as ISO 3200-1:2008. De jure standards are those standards that are required by law or regulation by some level of government. A good example is the Lead and Copper Rule that is part of the EPA’s Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. The last category is the voluntary consensus standard. These standards evolve when groups of companies gets together to design products based on technology from one company in hopes of capturing a larger market share than they could individually. For example, Bluetooth technology became the basis for IEEE 802.15.1.

Developing and implementing standards is an ongoing process. Current standards need to be updated and new technologies will create the need for more standards. Consider self-driving cars. No one is sure, when they will become widely available, but before they are, standards will need to be developed and implemented that allow for secure vehicle-to-vehicle communication and two-way communication between the vehicles and devices in the surrounding environment.

For further information:

  • Perry, J. (1955). The story of standards. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  • Thompson, D. C., & Standards Engineering Society. (2003). A guide to standards. Miami, FL: Standards Engineering Society.
  • Schneiderman, R. (2015). Modern standardization: Case Studies at the Crossroads of Technology, Economics, and Politics. Wiley.
  • Russell, A. L. (2014). Open standards and the digital age: History, ideology, and networks. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


  • Schneiderman, R. (2015). Modern standardization: Case Studies at the Crossroads of Technology, Economics, and Politics. Wiley.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #8
Technical Reports

written by Mel DeSart

This month’s Milestones column addresses technical reports – something I (and probably all of you) have been dealing with in some fashion your entire careers as engineering librarians, but a topic that came into particularly sharp focus for me roughly a dozen years ago (more on that later).

A gray literature hierarchy that leads to technical reports would look like this:
Gray/Grey Literature > Report Literature > Technical Reports

The Glossary of Information Handling (1964) defined a technical report as:

A report concerning the results of a scientific investigation or a technical development, test or evaluation, presented in a form suitable for dissemination to the technological community. The technical report is usually more detailed than an article or paper appearing in a journal or presented at a meeting. It will normally contain sufficient data to enable the qualified reader to evaluate the investigative process or the original research or development.

Technical reports can be issued from any of a number of different types of organizations, but the most common sources are government agencies and laboratories (federal/state/local) and their contractors, academic institutions, societies, and businesses/corporations. But of those, by far the largest is federal agencies (and their contractors), and most of the rest of this instance of Milestones will focus on that subset. Even as long ago as the early 1960s, it was estimated that the U.S. government and its contractors were churning out over 100,000 technical reports per year, and that production only increased over the ensuing decades.

Technical reports date to the first years of the 20th century, with the Professional Papers of the United States Geological Survey debuting in 1902 and the Technologic Papers of the National Bureau of Standards starting eight years later. In the UK, the R&M (Reports and Memoranda) series from the Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (later the Aeronautical Research Council) began publication in 1909. And while more agencies in the U.S. began to produce significant numbers of reports over the next few decades (e.g. the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in addition to the USGS and NBS mentioned above), technical report production and their use as a major form of communication exploded in the early 1940s, largely due to World War II. Three different streams contributed to this growth.

In June of 1941, almost six months before Pearl Harbor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was created to marshal and mobilize U.S. scientific resources, primarily to apply that research to improve the nation’s defense. While OSRD lasted only through WWII, the Publications Board followed on its heels in 1945. It in turn was absorbed by the Office of Technical Services, which in 1964 became the Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information (which makes for a really ugly acronym). Then, in 1970, the Clearinghouse was absorbed into the newly created National Technical Information Service (NTIS).

In 1942, a little (but ultimately extremely important) project code-named “Manhattan District” and conducted by the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago eventually led to the development of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which decades later (and with a couple intermediate steps) became part of the Department of Energy.

Because of the proliferation of classified reports, in the late 40’s organizations were developed to process those reports and make sure they reached only those who were cleared to read them. Two early examples were the Central Air Documents Office (CADO) and the Navy Research Section (NRS), both of which were consolidated in 1951 into the Armed Services Technical Information Agency (ASTIA). While many of you may not be familiar with ASTIA, you’ll probably better recognize what it eventually morphed into – the Defense Technical Information Center, or DTIC.

The primary distribution channels for U.S. government technical reports became the agencies themselves, the Government Printing Office (for certain select publications), DTIC for classified reports, and NTIS for pretty much anything non-classified. Because of the sheer volume of reports and report series, NTIS soon found it useful (and much simpler) to implement an accession number system (rather than relying on the numbering and classification system of thousands of different report series) and consolidated reports in specific subject areas into four broad categories. Many of you will recognize two of those (N for NASA and DE for the Department of Energy) and some of you will probably also know that the PB series stemmed from the Publication Board mentioned above. But give yourself a pat on the back if you knew where the AD acronym came from – look just one paragraph above to discover that the ADs started out as ASTIA Documents.

Early production and distribution of technical reports was entirely in paper, but with the explosion in the number of reports generated per year starting in the 1940s, unless organizations wanted to build entire new buildings to store the proliferation of reports, other storage and distribution options needed to be found. The most obvious was to make each report take up less space. The first step in that direction was distribution of reports on microcard, followed years later by microfiche, which allowed for the storage of a 100 page report on a roughly 4 x 6 inch piece of plastic with the approximate thickness of a business card.

In 1952, Eugene Miller wrote:

“…report literature is characterized by unprecedented volume, which has caused most of the classical techniques of acquisition, handling, bibliographical processing, circulation, and distribution and storage to bog down”, and that “Librarians have established satisfactory control over books and periodicals and journals. A wide variety of filing technologies has been worked out to handle correspondence. Report literature has not been adequately controlled either by correspondence techniques or by classical library techniques. It seems to be in a class by itself and most of its problems remain for people like us to figure out.”

Fast forward 50 years, to the early 2000s. Report literature was still largely uncontrolled, with reports in libraries either not cataloged at all or cataloged only at the series level. NTIS, although proficient at distributing reports, did so only at a price, since they were mandated to be largely self-sustaining, so those who could afford to purchase reports had them and those with less funding didn’t. As of October, 2016, NTIS made their National Technical Report Library (NTRL) openly available (bravo!) but that was not the case in the early 2000s. Government agencies first began to experiment with publishing and distributing their reports electronically in the mid-90s, but that practice was still only selective as of the early 2000s, and focused primarily on newly published material.

Miller suggested that the report literature “seems to be in a class by itself and most of its problems remain for people like us to figure out.” A little over 50 years later, a few librarians took a stab at addressing some of those problems. At that point technical reports (especially older ones) were still hard for individual researchers to locate – they were available only selectively, in multiple formats over time (in some cases, like microcard, now nearly impossible to read), with little bibliographic access at the individual report level, and most were available only for a fee. Enter a group of disgruntled engineering librarians led by Maliaca Oxnam at the University of Arizona. Without going through all the steps of its genesis, what came out of those initial conversations is now known as TRAIL, the Technical Report Archive and Image Library. TRAIL is one effort that has attempted to address all of the points Miller brought up over 50 years earlier: it made technical report content available electronically, so there were no significant acquisition, storage or handling issues for most users; it cataloged each and every report individually, so that there was bibliographic control and searchability; and it made every report it processed freely available over the internet, to address the cost/access issue for most reports that existed up to that point. [Disclaimer – I am one of the founding members of the group that developed what eventually became TRAIL.]

In combination with government agencies that are now (give or take a presidential administration) making the published results of their funded research available to read by anyone with an internet connection, efforts like TRAIL (and others) are helping bring to light the wealth of information contained in over 100 years of technical report literature.

Select Bibliography

  • Auger, C. P., Information Sources in Grey Literature, 4th ed., 1998. In particular sections of chapter 1, The Nature and Development of Grey Literature, pp. 1-16.
  • Calhoun, Ellen, Technical Reports Demystified, in: The Reference Librarian, no. 32, 1991, pp. 163-175.
  • Hall, J. L., Technical Report Literature, in: Handbook of Special Librarianship and Information Work, 4th ed., 1975, pp. 102-123.
  • McClure, Charles R., The Federal Technical Report Literature: Research Needs and Issues, in: Government Information Quarterly, v.5, no. 1, 1988, pp. 27-44.
  • Miller, Eugene E, The Genesis and Characteristics of Report Literature, in: American Documentation, v. 3, no. 2, 1952, pp. 91-94.
  • Purcell, Gary R., Technical Report Literature, in: Public Access to Government Information: Issues, Trends and Strategies, 2nd ed., 1988, pp. 207-228.
  • Tallman, Johanna, History and Importance of Technical Reports, in: Sci-Tech News, v. 15, no. 2, Summer 1961, pp. 44-46.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #9
Engineering Data

written by Chelsea Leachman

Within engineering and science the benefit of data availability leads to the acceleration of new technology and products. This rapid advancement of technology, products, and solutions relies on the availability of the data throughout the world. This month we look at how data has been and is currently being disseminated through engineering bulletins, journals, and repositories.

One of the first ways of distributing data was through engineering experiment stations. The creation of engineering experiment stations around the United States happened at the beginning of the 20th century “… to aid in the industrial development of the state and nation by scientific research and by furnishing information for the solution of engineering problems”1. In addition to providing research and solutions the engineering experiment stations made “… results of its scientific investigations available to the public…”2. Engineering experiment stations worked on projects from government agencies, local municipalities, and private corporations. One example of the type of research that was completed and reported from an engineering experiment station was the investigation of the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse done at the University of Washington engineering experiment station. While many university engineering experiment stations have been rolled into a larger engineering research division or discontinued during the mid-20th century, there are engineering experiment stations thriving today, such as the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. Through digitalization, many of the bulletins from engineering experiment stations are available electronically and are open access.

After the discontinuation of many experiment stations, there was a growing need for the ability to share data among researchers. During the mid-1980s the discussion started about data sharing started, and ultimately data journals were created. The newly created data journals had a new publishing model in which papers would have a “…searchable metadata document describing a particular online accessible data set, or a group of data sets, published in accordance to the standard academic practices”3. Early attempts to incorporate data into journals took two forms, 1) data as part of an article 2) data included as supplementary material4. The first attempt to include data in articles made it hard to separate the data for future use4. The second attempt worked better for making data available for research, and starting in 2009 more journals began moving supplementary data sets online.4 An example of an engineering-specific data journal is Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data, and there are many other interdisciplinary data journals. While data journals provided researchers with a peer review option for sharing their data, journals do not provide maintenance of files or support of data sharing. Out of this need for more support for data maintenance digital repositories have been created, both institutional and subject specific, to manage and maintain research data.
In the Registry of Research Data Repositories,, there are 233 engineering related data repositories. Repositories are from 36 different countries and range from higher educational institutions to government entities. Before these electronic data repositories, researchers wanting data would need to request if from the authors. That entailed its own set of problems: authors simply not being provide the data; incompatible formats; corrupt files; and the processing time. With the creation of digital repositories, the hope is that data will become more openly available to the public and researchers around the world. Together with data journals and data repositories, most major publishers include data requirements in their publishing policies requiring authors to include data at the time of submission and sharing large data sets through public repositories. Along with publishers, the National Science Foundation now requires researchers seeking funding to have a data management plan. With the creation of data repositories and the ability to share data openly, the conversation now has pivoted to the topic of data citation. While there are many ways to cite data, such as DOIs, organizations and professionals are struggling with the topic. These organizations include CODATA Data Citation Standards Practices Task Group and DataCite. The communication of engineering research is changing, and data is a large part of the change.

Select Biblography

  • University of Washington Engineering Experiment Station. University of Washington Engineering Experiment Station records. [cited 27 March 2017] Available from
  • University of Illinois College of Engineering. The College of Engineering and Engineering Experiment Station of the University of Illinois. A pictorial description. University of Illinois. Available from
  • Chavan V, Penev L. 2011. The data paper: a mechanism to incentivize data publishing in biodiversity science. BMC Bioinformatics. 12(15):S2.
  • Candela L, Castelli D, Manghi P, Tani A. 2015. Data journals: A survey. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. 66(9):1747-1762.

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Milestones in Engineering Information, #10
Engineering Libraries

written by Chelsea Leachman

This month the ELD Anniversary Planning Task Force examines the history of engineering libraries, from the developments in engineering education to the creation of departmental libraries in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century universities. Some of the first universities to have an engineering library include Columbia (1865), Cornell (1893), MIT (1893), Nebraska (1899), Wisconsin (1900), Michigan (1904), Missouri (1905), Pennsylvania (1906), Iowa State (1906), and Kansas (1909).1 Many other universities followed suit throughout the twentieth century by creating engineering libraries during the construction of new infrastructure.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of rapid growth in engineering due, in part, to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 which established engineering programs at Land-Grant Institutions. This rapid growth lead to the creation of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE), now the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), which is dedicated to the coordination and development of engineering education. With this increased focus on engineering education, there was a growing emphasis on the use of literature at engineering universities. Leaders in technical writing instruction stated that the “…engineer simply needs to learn how to use a library as a means of mastering new subjects and to gain a clear idea of the value and the interest which the past has stored up…”2 This increased emphasis on writing and the use of library materials motivated campus faculty and administrators to advocate for departmental libraries and more specifically engineering libraries.

Because Engineering Libraries were usually located in close proximity to their primary users, they were a major departure from the larger and usually more centralized humanities and social sciences libraries. Departmental libraries across the country were filling the need to have materials close to the faculty’s research. As Bliss stated in 1912, “The users of books are sometimes willing to traverse some distance to obtain them, be it a minute’s walk or a mile…, but they more often decline…[T]hey are busy workers; impatient of loss of time and intolerant of inconvenience…the books must be close at hand.”3

Another motive for the creation of engineering libraries was the introduction of instructional seminars. Contrary to current connotations, seminars or seminaries were groups of advanced students working closely with a professor to analyze as many authorities as possible on a given subject, report the findings to the group and present the sources. A professor of railroad engineering at MIT stated that seminars “…makes [the student] familiar in the proper way with the library, with books themselves, materials from which the engineer will find it necessary to acquire much information and instruction.”1 These seminars required the heavy use of books and many groups created seminary libraries that evolved into department libraries.

As small seminary libraries began to occupy more space and the size of their collections increased, they started to become a part of the engineering laboratory, which further increased the support for creating individual engineering libraries. The thought of the library as an origin for research grew during the turn of the early twentieth century as the focus of faculty switched from primarily teaching to research. Additionally, as faculty research increased so did publishing, and the demand for libraries to provide access to these publications grew.

While the number of engineering libraries increased throughout the twentieth century, a new trend has emerged over the last decade with the closure or consolidation of individual engineering libraries. Many engineering library closures are attributed to budget cuts or the need for more research/faculty spaces but this does not diminish a growing need for engineering student space. As stated in an article that reported on the proposed closure of an engineering library: “For engineering students, the engineering library was more than a building, but also a community-based learning environment for students.”4 Perhaps it is time for more seminaries on our changing future.

Select Bibliography

  • Neeley JD. 2008. A Library for Engineering Education: Frank O. Marvin and the University of Kansas, 1875-1915. Libraries & the Cultural Record. 43(4):411-439.
  • Earle SC. 1911. English in the engineering school at Tufts College. Engineering Education. 19:33.
  • Bliss HE. 1912. Departmental libraries in universities & colleges. New York.
  • Sultan I. 2016 September 6. Students petition to keep engineering library open – The Temple News.

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